Burden of high prices behind bars in NC (2024)

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As Cierra Cobb grapples with a soaring grocery bill at home due to historic inflation, she has to also help her husband pay for necessities such as hygiene and other items at the Maury Correctional Institution’s prison canteen.

The rising cost of household staples has put a strain on her budget, so she must choose between putting money in her husband’s trust fund account or on his tablet, which he uses to communicate with her.

“It’s putting a burden on me and everyone who has someone incarcerated,” she said. “We have to limit what we can and can’t send them. Sometimes I could put money on his tablet but put less money on the canteen, or more money in the canteen, and then he can’t have tablet time.”

Families of men and women incarcerated in North Carolina prisons are dealing with inflation in their own households while struggling to pay for the rising costs of essential items at prison canteens for their loved ones.

Incarcerated people rely on the prison canteen — a small shop inside prisons — to purchase essential items like hygiene products and snacks that the Department of Adult Correction does not provide.

Many rely on the canteen to supplement their diet, but rising prices due to inflation are making these items difficult to afford, especially for those struggling financially.

“It’s a double whammy because we have inflation at the grocery store outside, and then we have to deal with inflation inside,” Cobb said. “Simply put, you’re sometimes in the negative trying to take care of them.”

Rising cost of support

At Maury Correctional Institution in Greene County, where Cierra’s husband, Jeffrey Cobb has been incarcerated since 2017, a 29-ounce box of Banquet fried chicken now costs $13.46, a price that Jeffrey said is out of reach for many incarcerated people.

In 2018, the same box cost $6.40, he said. The boxes sometimes come with fewer than the six pieces advertised and the prices are so high that the chicken sometimes goes bad because few people can afford to buy them, Jeffrey said.

“They aren’t buying loads of it no more, and because of that it is getting mold on it,” said Jeffrey, who is serving a 30-year sentence for second-degree murder.

The cost of some items at the Central Prison canteen in Raleigh has increased so much over the past year that Lyle May is forced to cut back. A tube of Aquafresh Toothpaste-Sensitive now costs $5.70, up 52% from a year ago. Dental floss costs 48 cents, up 92% since last year.

Denture adhesive has increased by more than 148%, to $8.70, according to May, who is on death row.

“These are essential items that many people are forgoing simply because the cost keeps rising,” said May, a prison journalist who writes on issues related to mass incarceration and the death penalty. “People with dentures simply don’t wear dentures because they can’t afford the adhesive.”

For May, the price hikes serve as a reminder of how hard it can be for families to afford to send money to their loved ones in prison while also struggling with high prices on the outside.

“Those high costs also remind us of our absolute dependence on friends and family to send money to afford these things,” May said.

“Those people are also dealing with rising costs at the supermarket and are unlikely to send more money to their incarcerated loved ones when they were already struggling to do so.”

John Bull, a spokesperson for the Department Adult of Correction, said inflation has affected everyone, not just incarcerated people.

“Offenders in the North Carolina prison system aren’t affected by food or housing costs. Those are provided for them by the taxpayers,” Bull said. “All offenders are provided three square meals a day. Offenders are paying more for snacks and non-essentials because of inflation, just like everyone else. If they choose to purchase items from the canteens, that’s their choice.”

More than just inflation

While inflation is a factor, the high prices in state prisons are also because they have long been subject to price markups through agreements between the prisons and vendors. Since 2015, prices have been subject to up to a 20% markup at prison commissaries, according to DAC. Prior to this, they could be marked up by up to 18%.

In North Carolina, each state prison decides its own commissary prices, item selection, and vendor contracts. Profits for at least 13 prison canteens in North Carolina have increased significantly since 2015, partly due to the markups, according to a records request obtained by CPP.

For example, Avery-Mitchell Correctional Institution made about $21,000 in profits in 2015. As of August 2023, that figure was more than $100,000, a 21% increase, based on DAC data. Columbus and Alexander Correctional Institutions also saw double-digit increases in their profits, from 6% and 9% in 2015 to 18% and 17%, respectively, as of August 2023.

DAC said in a statement that profits increased partly because of the 20% markup on all canteen items, except stamps, in 2015. DAC also increased inmate spending limits to the current level of $45, $60 and $75 for close, medium, and minimum custody, respectively.

“When people buy things at the canteen, they’re often buying things that they can’t go without,” said Wanda Bertram, a communications strategist for the Prison Policy Initiative, a think tank focused on criminal justice. “It’s not right … for the prison or a company to be making money off of people shopping for those things.”

North Carolina prison commissary profits go to a welfare fund that the Department of Corrections is supposed to use on programs that benefit inmates. By law, some of the money goes to the Crime Victims Compensation Fund, which has received nearly $2 million since 2019, according to records obtained by CPP.

DAC says these funds are allocated to prison facilities for programs, education and recreational equipment. However, Bertram said the state should fund programs and services for incarcerated people, not shift the cost to inmates and their families by forcing them to buy essential items in the prison canteen.

“If there’s a program that people in prison need, that money for that program should come from the state,” Bertram said.

“You’re investing in incarcerated people’s lives and investing in their welfare when they come back from prison, that’s something that’s a public good. Taxpayers should be paying for that and not just the families of incarcerated people when they’re trying to buy something like a bottle of water.”

Economic strain on families

To prevent contraband from entering prisons or jails, correctional agencies prohibit family members from bringing packages during visits or mailing them directly to incarcerated loved ones.

To send packages, family members must order through online catalogs operated by Union Supply Group, the exclusive provider of packages to North Carolina prisons.

Its catalogs offer a variety of items, including toiletries, snacks and clothing. However, prices for these items are often higher than on the outside, and families often have to pay for shipping.

Burden of high prices behind bars in NC (1)

Cierra is one of many people who rely on USG to send food, clothing and gifts to her husband. She stopped ordering care packages for about a year because of the high cost.

“They had gone up so much for about a good year,” said Cierra, who has now resumed ordering the packages. “He told me not to buy them because some of the items on the care package were cheaper at the canteen.”

She pays more for some items, such as a 10-ounce Jergen lotion that costs $9.85, far more than she would spend outside.

USG is partnered with North Carolina Correction Enterprises, which is under DAC. Companies such as USG offer their services at no charge to corrections agencies along with a share of the revenue. In the last five years, North Carolina earned about $2.8 million from USG based on a 20% commission, according to records obtained by CPP.

Correction Enterprises operates the care package program at the Anson Correctional Institution in Polkton. About 21 incarcerated people work on the package program, earning $10.51 per hour. DAC said the revenue it receives from USG is reimbursem*nt for operating the facility, including staff wages and benefits, rent and utilities.

USG has paid a 20% commission to Correction Enterprises since 2013, which will increase significantly this year after the company was forced to raise it to 35%.

In July 2021, after initially losing the package program to Keefe Group, which offered 35% commission in its bid, significantly higher than USG’s offer of 20%, USG sued. This past March, an administrative law judge awarded the contract back to USG, but this time the company agreed to pay a 35% commission.

Low prison wages

May and Jeffrey say the biggest issue they face is low pay inside prisons, which is well below the federal minimum wage.

Inflation is affecting everyone, but incarcerated people face even greater challenges because of their limited options, May said. People outside of prison can seek better-paying jobs, and employers are sometimes inclined to raise wages.

“Prices are indeed rising across the board, so too are the wages available to those in the workforce. An effort among employers exists to increase wages to match the cost of living. In contrast, North Carolina prisons continue to pay inmates the same rates they were paid in the 1960s and 1970s,” May said.

A 2022 ACLU report found that inmates in state prisons across the U.S. are paid on average between 13 and 52 cents per hour for “non-industry jobs,” such as janitorial work or maintenance and repairs, which make up the majority of prison jobs.

In North Carolina, for non-industry jobs, the daily wage is between 40 cents and $1.

About 90% of incarcerated people assigned to work programs in fiscal year 2020-21 worked inside prison facilities, according to the Department of Public Safety annual statistical report.

These jobs help reduce the cost of building and operating facilities, while providing job skills that can help incarcerated people find employment upon release, according to the report.

Incarcerated people working in prison industries earn up to $3 per day, for work such as farming, food processing, printing, sewing, laundering, and manufacturing car license tags and street signs.

Question before the courts

Kristi Graunke, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina, says underpaying incarcerated people, especially when preparing them for the workforce, hinders their ability to thrive outside of prison and increases their risk of recidivism.

People in prisons often need to save money for things like transportation, housing, and food after they are released.

“To the extent that (job skills) are transferable, it makes no sense not to pay them more fairly for that work,” Graunke said. “Forcing incarcerated people to work for very little money, and then not leaving them a nest egg when they leave prison, creates a cycle of recidivism.”

The courts have ruled that incarcerated individuals working within prisons do not have the right to the minimum wage. However, a Maryland case currently before the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit may soon determine whether prisoners working alongside non-incarcerated individuals for third party employers beyond prison walls are subject to the same minimum wage laws.

The ACLU of North Carolina and other chapters recently submitted an amicus brief in the case, arguing that those incarcerated individuals working for third party employees should be entitled to the same minimum wage protections as other workers.

“This practice of putting incarcerated workers alongside private sector workers turns that law on its head and undermines it because the incentive for these private companies or third parties is to reach out and try to get more incarcerated workers because they’re cheaper, rather than hire people who are free world laborers,” Graunke said.

“That is something that ought to be of concern to the court because not covering incarcerated workers in this instance really undermines the entire purpose of the minimum wage statute.”


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